Ecology & Place
The day Horace fell, all of the trees gathered in the subterranean mycorrhizal fungi network and reflected. Horace was the largest tree in their forest, a beacon of strength and quiet poise. His life story was legendary, and taught to all infantile trees when learning of a tree's most important trait: perseverance.
Unlike the new trees of today, Horace chose to grow on the backside of Achilles Hill. In his youth, Achilles Hill was a stunning hill with an impenetrable canopy of massive trees. Other saplings on a sunnier side of the hill would always loudly tease Horace for his poor positioning.
"You will never make it past 4 years old, there isn't enough sunlight on your side. Your poor oak." they would chide from their side.
Horace paid them no mind, confident that fate would help him. The moment he was born, in 1800, he was flying though the air. He was born as his seed was airborne, and he realized that he had the rare opportunity to choose his birthplace, as wherever he flew and landed would be his permanent residence. He was floating a few hundred feet above, and he could see the sunny side of the hill. Just as he was about to dive for it, he heard a whisper from inside and outside his acorn simultaneously.
"Grow on the other side," it whispered. Horace did not recognize the voice, but he felt a compassion in its tone that made it trustworthy. "But there is no way I can survive with so little sun there," he thought to himself. Still, the slow rhythm of the voice bantered on, repeating the same message.
He decided to give it a shot, thinking that perhaps a strong wind or flood could move him before his roots grew. Horace dove from the air right toward an infinitesimal opening in the canopy, just making the gap before landing suddenly in the dirt. Ever since that first day, he has heard the remarks from fellow saplings. In 1800, he couldn't see them yet, as the trees were too small to see over the curve of the hill. Despite not being able to see them, he could still feel the chides from the saplings on the other side through the mycorrhizal fungus network linking them all together.
Horace thought growing up that he would be the only sapling in his area, and that he would likely die in infancy. However, when Horace was four years old and beginning to have stunted growth, another sapling appeared on his side of the hill, only seven feet from him! He realized he was dying, and he decided that he would send as much nutrients as he could spare to this little sapling to give it a better shot at growing up. Sending it through the mycorrhizal network, he realized that the young sapling was a white ash named Iris, and that she desperately needed his help. Every day he would send her a morning dose of energy, but everyday Horace could only spare less and less. On Horace's 5th birthday, he could count the days until his energy was depleted and he would die. He had pushed to survive for longer than red oaks normally stay alive without sufficient sunlight, but his time was coming, and the trees who were growing rapidly on the sunny side of the hill stopped chiding him. They started sending their condolences and well wishes, a sign of their maturity into fine young adults.
Just as Horace was giving up, and ready to send his remaining vitality to poor, doomed Iris next to him, he heard a strange sound. It was a sound unlike any he had heard, and it sounded throughout the woods. It sounded like a squirrel falling out of his branches and landing on the ground, but this noise was happening every five seconds, and the sound was louder than a squirrel's thump.
A loud, cracking sound could then be heard, and Horace knew this terrifying sound. The swift fall of a tree to the ground makes the most unmistakable sound as it writhes to its final resting place. Who had fallen? Today was a gorgeous, sunny day, so the death of a tree would be quite rare on this auspicious day. He heard another thumping sound, and then another writhing tree. What could be happening?
Perhaps his young age made him hopelessly unaware of this phenomenon, but the trees around him seemed just as bewildered. The cracking and falling didn’t stop, and soon he could see a graveyard of trees with pale, two-legged mammals chopping them down in a straight line. Centuries of trees gone in minutes, Horace couldn’t believe what was happening. He felt the networks connecting him to his mentors wilt and crumble. Their knowledge was no longer accessible, their lessons forever stopped. The chopping got closer and closer, and he worried less for himself than Iris. If they were killing these massive trees, why would they spare these two weak younglings?
As these history-destroyers reached him, Horace could hear their squeaking, and knew his time had come. Just as he thought they were going to begin chopping him up, they moved to the 90-year-old White Oak ten feet to his left, and began its demise. They worked all around him and Iris, but they left them alone! The sun began setting, and the little mammals scurried back over the hill until he could no longer see or hear them.
That was the loneliest night of Horace’s life. All of his friends except for one were gone. He solemnly exchanged horror with Iris, still unsure of what tool could have caused the cracking, and why anyone would do such colossal damage. He spent the rest of the night sending impulses to his fallen friends, hoping they might still send a signal back.
The next morning, he felt a very strange sensation. It wasn’t the chop of a mammal killing him, it was something that felt good. He couldn’t really place it, he had never felt it before. His leaves felt stronger and his trunk stiff and resolute. How could such tragedy around him make him feel good? Horace felt guilty for this uncontrollable feeling spreading around him, and he even could feel that Iris was abnormally active as well.
In an instant, he understood why he felt so great. It was the first time he had felt sunlight on his bark and leaves! His normally brittle, limping leaves straightened out into fine specimens of dark green, and his trunk began to harden into a strong outer layer. Sunlight, the life-giver that allowed his mentors to grow but left him stunted, now unapologetically showered him. Horace’s experience was thrown into one of warm highs and deadly lows.
Late morning, the little people returned with their loud equipment, and proceeded their melee farther up the hill and over to the other side. Most of the younger trees of his generation who used to taunt him now cried for his help as they were chopped down. The people left only a few trees remaining, and Horace and Iris were some of the lucky ones.
Decades passed, and Horace’s old friends became repurposed into an odd, rectangular concoction that the little people spent the dark hours underneath. They built more boxes and more of their kind showed up through the decades. By the 1830s, a big family had formed, and Horace grew familiar with each of the little people’s personalities. Before their eyes, he grew into a sprawling red oak, and Iris branched out into a fine white ash. The trees’ success stemmed from the slaughter of their siblings, leading Horace into an ethical quandary with which he could never come to grips. The only reason he is alive is because of the little people, and yet they caused the killing of almost everyone he knew. They were malevolent, right?
Centuries passed, and Horace’s old friends became repurposed into chairs and firewood. The structures made by the people began taking on towering and varying material makeup. Horace and Iris’s unfettered access to space and sunlight saw them live generations past their friends, and they soon came to be known as the wisest trees in what remained of the forest.
Horace always thought that he would fall before Iris, whether because of his viability for people-use, or simply because he was older and therefore more prone to accidents. It must have been the end of the 20th century when he could feel from Iris that something was wrong. They had known each other so long, that he could understand the slightest changes in her. Even though they were different species, they still could communicate. One spring morning, she sent out a warning that a parasite was beginning to attack trees, and that Horace should prepare to attack it. Parasite scares happened occasionally, but this time, Iris looked worried. She told Horace that she was not getting a response from any of her white ashes in the vicinity, and that this had never happened before.
Horace worried for her, but knew that her age gave her massive strength to fight parasites. He also worried for his fellow red oaks, who all seemed to be still healthy and communicating with him regularly.
Healthy White Ash
Within two months, Iris had a patch of brown leaves on her normally vibrant, green overstory, and a year later an entire branch had rotted off. The Emerald Ash Borer, a virulent parasite who has laid waste to thousands of white ash since its entrance into the USA in the 90s, took over Iris. Horace could do nothing but send her extra resources to prolong the decay. He didn’t think this could happen to an almost 200-year-old tree like Iris. Every day, he attempted optimism to help her suffering, but it was no use. As her third year with the parasite came around, Iris was barely recognizeable. As she was nearing her end, she began doing what Horace thought she never would. In the middle of the dark hours, Horace felt her sending him energy! She knew she was doomed, and realized that the resources would be better used in a healthy tree. Horace thought back to 1807 when he had given up and began sending her the last of his resources. Now the opposite was true. He gracefully accepted her resources, and he thanked her for the centuries of memories they shared. The two of them were a beacon of hope for a forest scared of the now unavoidable impact of the little people.
The day Iris fell, all of the trees gathered in the mycorrhizal network and reflected. She was one of the first trees in the new forest, and the last white ash. Horace wept, and he soon had dark patches in his overstory. The parasite had not taken root, Horace was just now over 200 years old and worn out. Seeing his partner slowly rot to death took more energy from him than any of the trees around him could have supplied.
Effects of the Emerald
The day Horace fell, all of the trees gathered in the subterranean mycorrhizal fungi network and reflected. Living to be over 200, Horace was the last tree in the forest to possess knowledge of the time before humans. Their destruction was commonplace, normalized, in the trees of today. Horace alone knew the splendor of human-less existence. But, time always brings changes, and the trees of today need to learn to adapt with the harshness of the humans. Horace’s story is spread far and wide in the circles of trees in Southwestern Ohio. It is said his story continues spreading every year to more trees across America and the continent. Perhaps seeds will fly to other continents so the entire world can know of Horace and Iris, and the time before human destruction.